In November I visited the KIPP high school in New York City and wrote about it. Trying to be diplomatic and maybe even be invited to come back some time, I left out some things that I wanted to write about. More recently, I reached out to the two founders of KIPP in one of my open letters and was kind of disappointed that they did not respond to it. I also had tried to make that letter pretty tame and easy to respond to, and both Dave and Mike did write back to me that they got the letter, but it was pretty clear that there was not going to be any big public response the way that, for example, Wendy Kopp did.
So maybe this is petty, but this made me a bit upset. Here I was trying to advance dialogue and also having showed ‘good faith’ by diluting my analysis of their flagship high school and they could not be bothered to write back a small response to someone they have known for twenty years.
So this made me want to reveal a little more about what I learned at KIPP. I suppose I could have channeled my feelings into a giant post, but I decided instead to write a bunch of small posts and see how they are received and what sort of interest, in terms of the comments and discussion I appreciate, these generate.
Most people who are not knowledgeable about education will do a short school visit to a school and really have no idea how to put what they see into any context. So they see kids in uniforms and they see a teacher using a ‘Smartboard’ and they leave the school impressed. I did a full day visit, from about 8:30 AM to 3:00 PM. Not only did I sit in on classes, but I talked to the teachers and also couldn’t help but overhear some conversations that I probably wasn’t supposed to hear. In this post, I’ll describe two such conversations.
The KIPP high school has a large area in the middle with a lot of tables, almost like a coffee shop. I went out to get lunch at the nearby Fairway and came back and sat at one of those tables to eat. At the table next to me I overheard a discussion between a KIPP administrator and a teacher. Most of the KIPP administrators, like this woman was, are young and white, as are most of the teachers. This teacher was black and seemed to be in her late 40s. The conference was related to some sort of recommendation letter, maybe for some academic program, that the older teacher was writing for one of her former students. I’m not sure who initiated this discussion, but the administrator was explaining that the letter should be re-written. The issue was that this teacher had been a bit too ‘honest’ in the letter and it would hurt the chances of this student getting into the program. Now I’ve written many recommendation letters, and of course you want to put the student in the best possible light, so I’m not saying that the administrator was wrong in suggesting that this teacher change the letter. I’m just writing about this since some of the things said in the discussion were revealing.
Apparently this student had a bad attitude and failed the course. The teacher had written about this so the administrator explained to this teacher that, yes, the student had failed, but that a lot of students fail that course (I think it was Geometry). Also, it was important that the teacher understand that getting a 60 in that course at the KIPP school was like getting a 90 in most other schools since, I guess she felt like she knew, the other neighborhood schools have extreme grade inflation. The conference was resolved with the teacher agreeing to rewrite the letter keeping these things in mind. I found it interesting that a lot of students fail this course since the media would have us believe that after being in KIPP from 5th grade to 11th grade, students there wouldn’t be failing that much. Also, the assumption that the ‘other’ schools have such low expectations that a 90 there is like a 60 at KIPP, I don’t know if she how she can be so confident about that claim.
Until they get their new building next year, there are not a lot of empty rooms at KIPP high school for teachers to work so they have a big area in the middle of the school, kind of like an open teacher’s lounge. I went to this area to plan what class to visit and also to chat with some of the teachers. I’ve been teaching for fifteen years and I feel like I really ‘know’ teachers and generally get along with them as peers. I don’t think most of the teachers there knew that I write a blog or that things they say could show up on the internet. It’s not like I was wearing one of those hats with a ‘press’ card on it, so they were just being themselves and not being extra careful around me.
I heard a math teacher explain to another administrator that one of the girls in his class was refusing to do the work. It was clear that this was a chronic problem. The administrator asked if the teacher had spoken to the student’s father and the teacher chuckled and shook his head, indicating that he had tried to reach out to that parent many times before and that it was futile. I found this interaction interesting not because it really surprised me, but because it would have surprised many people who think of KIPP as this place where students aren’t ‘allowed’ to fail. The fact is that these teachers are the same kind of mortals that teach in other schools. They don’t have the magic secrets to overcome all the factors that prevent kids from reaching their potential. Despite all the advantages with small class sizes (about 20 to 25 a class) and small teaching loads (teachers there teach 4 classes, as opposed to the 5 or even 6 at other schools), teachers still struggle with motivating students and also eventually throw their hands up and ‘give up’ on them.